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Jeffrey Shallit

Now and again people write me about why I have not responded at length to Jeffrey Shallit’s criticisms of my work. Here is an explanation that I sent off today to a colleague:

Dear [snip],

I’m afraid I don’t take Shallit very seriously as a critic. It is his habit to harrass anyone who endorses my work (including a mathematician at Oxford and an engineer on the faculty at Sydney, questioning not only their competence to assess my work but also their ethics in endorsing it).

His criticisms tend to focus on trivialities (he spent three years trying to show that a quote widely attributed to Schopenhauer that I cited in my work was not actually written by Schopenhauer — for the quote, go here). As for some number about which he keeps harping that I miscalculated in my book No Free Lunch, it turns out that when it is calculated correctly, it makes my case even more strongly. There are plenty worse to be found in the literature, as for instance the gaffe early on in Simon Conway Morris’s book Life’s Solution, in which exponent and base are reversed (p, 9). I doubt that Shallit has contacted Conway Morris about this.

Shallit, besides his obsessiveness in criticizing my work and harrassing those who endorse it, seems also to have no compunction in doing things that are frankly unethical. Thus, for instance, when I was co-editing a book for Cambridge University Press with Michael Ruse titled Debating Design, he wrote to Michael asking that an article of his be inserted in the book without my knowledge — in fact, he explicitly asked Michael not to reveal Shallit’s intentions to me. Michael, appropriately, forwarded Shallit’s letter to me, so I have the documentation.

Most significantly, Shallit’s critique of my work (along with that of his collaborator Wesley Elsberry) is now several years out of date. I just posted on my designinference.com website a paper on specification that moves the topic forward. Several months ago I posted a paper titled “Searching Large Spaces” that fills in the mathematical details of chapter 4 of No Free Lunch. When I informed Shallit of its existence on my website, he wrote back: “I do not intend to waste my time finding more errors in more work of yours.”

The irony is that Shallit and Elsberry are making a name for themselves by parasitizing my work. Shallit has published one lengthy peer-reviewed article criticizing my work and has another under submission (coauthored with Wesley Elsberry) titled “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information’.” That article first appeared on the web in November 2003 and is under submission with some journal (Shallit and Elsberry are not divulging which). That paper is now completely out of date.

Best wishes,
Bill Dembski

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11 Responses to Jeffrey Shallit

  1. I do credit Jeff Shallit for being your teacher almost two decades ago in 1987. Shallit thus helped train one of the leading lights of Intelligent Design. For that, the ID community is in debt to Jeffrey Shallit. :-)

    I’m glad you didn’t waste time his criticisms of your work. It wasn’t worth the effort. Anyway, the paper you referenced by Elsberry and Shallit was more than adequately refuted by someone over at ISCID.

    As always I look forward to reading your latest paper.

  2. I agree with you that Shallit does not seem to be worth responding to, however, I think you probably should for a couple of reasons:

    1) Your letter seems to be characterizing Shallit’s arguments and points by characterizing Shallit. I think you should attack Shallit’s arguments but not Shallit himself.

    2) If Shallit’s arguments are as bad as you allude that they are, it will make your case better.

    [There are three ways to respond to critics. One is to speak to the credibility of the critic -- that was my point in this post. Another is by going through their arguments point by point. I've done plenty of this on my website http://www.designinference.com -- see, for instance, my responses to Richard Wein and Allen Orr in 2002 or my response to Miller in 2003. A final way, which I find more satisfying and fruitful, is to develop and clarify one's case so that the criticisms of the past don't amount to anything anymore. I've done that with Shallit in my papers "Searching Large Spaces" and "Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence." The ball is in Shallit's court, and he has indicated that he's not going to play ball any more. To quote him again: "I do not intend to waste my time finding more errors in more work of yours." --WmAD]

  3. Response to Dembski’s Accusations

    In a recent blog entry, William Dembski alleges I am guilty of various and sundry offenses, but avoids once again answering my critiques of his work.  I doubt his smokescreen will convince anyone except the usual sycophants, but in case…

  4. If I search google scholar for Shallit or Dembski the search results show that Shalit is very well published in peer-reviewed math journals, as opposed to Dembski. I think the onus in on you to answer his points. Not necessarily because its clear you have not earned the right to say “I do not take Shallit very seriously as a critic”. Consider that if you were to try to publish your work in a real journal Dr. Shalit would be one likely to peer review you.

    [As I've indicated, one can answer somebody by responding directly to his/her criticisms or one can develop a new line of argument that renders the previous criticisms passé. I've adopted the latter approach to responding to Shallit in my recent papers on searching large spaces and specification (see http://www.designinference.com). As for Shallit reviewing my work if submitted to "real journals," I'm afraid that's unlikely to happen -- his area is computational number theory, mine is probability theory. I frankly doubt that he is in a position, for instance, to evaluate my paper "Searching Large Spaces." He would need to know a fair amount of functional analysis and measure theory -- certainly beyond the usual exposure of grad students in math who are not specializing in analysis/ probability theory. --WmAD]

  5. Shallit Responds to Dembski

    Jeff Shallit has issued a response on Panda’s Thumb to accusations made (in lieu of a response) by William Dembski to his criticisms of Dembski’s work. Dembski’s response to the criticism of Shallit and Wes Elsberry is pretty standard stuff…

  6. Bill, I’m confused. First you say that “[Shallit's] criticisms tend to focus on trivialities”. Then in your responses to #2 & #4 you say his trivial critiques goaded you into writing two whole new papers in order to “develop a new line of argument”.

    Isn’t that a tacit admission that they are substantive criticisms? Why would you go to the trouble to develop a whole new line of argument if the critiques were “trivial”?

    Since you’re confident you’ve already “render[ed] the previous criticisms passé”, why not simply acknowledge that your opponents had made a good point and move on? You’d be the bigger man for it. I mean, did Darwin ever roll up into a defensive ball and snipe at his critics? No! He regularly gave his opponents their props for bringing up arguments that deserved a serious response. Admittedly, for his trouble Darwin ends up getting characterized by the more mendatious creationists as harboring private doubts about his theory. But I’m sure you agree that among respectable, honest scholars on both sides of the debate, Darwin has retained enormous respect after all these years for his open & gracious attitude to the debates over his theory.

    I’m not familiar with the details of too many of the great scientific feuds, so I don’t know who’s the negative example to cite. All I can think of is Nixon & his enemies list. Eeew!

  7. [...] #

    Sorry. Too much professional wrestling. Bill “Piledriver” Dembski accuses Jeffrey Shallit of some pretty nasty stuff. Shallit responds calmly and reasonably. [...]

  8. [...] o real time to blog. I’ll just note that Jeff Shallit has replied to Dembski’s comments on him (which I blogged earlier in “The Parasite’s Tal [...]

  9. The Karl Rove of Information Theory?

    William Dembski continues to avoid answering my detailed criticisms of his work.  Instead, he continues his personal attacks.  Ever more desperate, he now resorts to quoting anonymous e-mail messages attacking me.  I guess this is yet an…

  10. [...] replying to my blog entry of June 23, 2005 (go here for my entry and here for Shallit’s response), Jeffrey Shallit has succumbed to the endearing [...]

  11. [...] PS: Dembski and Luskin have responded at one time or another to the S-E team, try here and here. [...]

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